Unions were more than just an economic bulwark. In the immigrants' intense search for community, the unions provided yet another nodal point for activity. During the working day, the shop floors may have been the scene of acrimony and competition, but they also provided fellowship to young and lonesome new arrivals. With a little money in their pockets, they were eager to experience the world, and here were their ready-made companions. For very simple and practical reasons of language, the unions in New York divided into national sections, and there immigrant youth most naturally found their recreation with one another.

My uncle Abie, a member of the chicken-pluckers' union, was a devoted member of their baseball team. The garment workers organized choruses, mandolin groups, put on plays, arranged picnics. And in the summer there were excursion and camps for longer stays.

I am not sure whether the unions were the promoters or simply the vehicle for a very powerful sense of class that marked these union groups. One of the ILGWU pieces of union propaganda showed a large cluster of bananas on a plain ground, with the slogan: "Stick to your own bunch!" "We're plain people," my relatives would say, or, "We're working people," and there was an insistence on plainness in which was mixed a good deal of pride. They boasted of what they did not have, those emblems of luxury --- fur coats, jewels, cars. It did not matter that they did not have the means to buy these things in the first place.

I think it was true that they did not have the appetite for what they saw as beyond their place in life. Nonetheless, in a grand gesture, they were renouncing them ahead of time. This was not what Marx called "the damned wantlessness of the poor." Rather, it was the memory of the deprivation from which they had escaped as children, and that lasted them for the rest of their lives. They could not drop a piece of bread without picking it up quickly and guiltily. And when it snowed, they could still revel, albeit silently, in how wonderful it was to have thick boots and a warm coat. It made moderate comfort seem like luxury.

Their pleasures took on some of this coloring of being easily pleased. Those with a taste for classical music often spoke rapturously of their pleasure in it, and took it for granted that they would wait for an hour or two after work outside Lewisohn Stadium in order to sit on the stone amphitheater seats. They waited for more hours for standing-room places at the Metropolitan Opera, or entering by the side entrance on 39th Street, made the steep climb up uncarpeted steps to the Family Circle where one could sit for 55 cents.

But underneath it all, every worker knew that his health and his strength were all that stood between him and destitution. When Social Security legislation was passed in 1935 guaranteeing workers a lifetime income upon their retirement, it was more security than most had ever dreamed of. Small wonder that Roosevelt was regarded as only a little lower than Moses in the Jewish working class community. All over New York, in workshops and store windows, a particularly dashing picture of him in a cloak was on display. In a hard world, he touched many hearts. As I listened to the members of the immigrant generation tell the stories of their childhood in the Old Country, what I heard, again and again, were tales of want and fear. While work might have tempered want, there was no way to still the constant fear of sudden, irrational, capricious attacks by the peasants, by the military, by the forces of the lawfully constituted government. There was only flight. In 1906, when my father was ten years old, there was a pogrom in Bialystok, the city nearest his village, and as word spread through the countryside, it only confirmed the underlying apprehension in the neighboring Jewish hamlets.

Five years later, in 1911, Mendel Beilis, the foreman of a brick factory in the neighborhood of Kiev, was arrested and charged with ritual murder. The prosecution of this case, which had the enthusiastic encouragement of the Tsar, further chilled the hearts of the Jewish population. It was a regime they knew despised its Jewish subjects and by a combination of chicanery, discrimination, and outright persecution hoped to make them go away. But the Beilis Case was too much for the outside world. International committees were formed. Prominent jurists protested the injustice, the sheer superstition of the accusation.

After holding Beilis in jail for two years, the regime was finally forced to bring him to trial under the observation of an international audience. The government's case was so weak that even a jury of peasants found Beilis not guilty, and after his acquittal in 1913 he left with his family for Palestine.

In the same year, my father left for the United States, as had his brothers and sisters before him. My father was lucky. He had only heard of the pogrom in Bialystok and the Beilis trial. Others who had experienced the violence themselves, or whose relatives had survived to tell of the looting, raping, and burning, were forever marked by their exposure to these horrors. Their memories left them with a fear of impending menace and a sense of apprehension that they carried with them to the New World and could never shake off.

--- From Unfinished People
Ruth Gay
©1996 W. H. Norton
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH